Every 12 months, music snobs and fans debate whether or not it was a "good year for music." What determines this beyond personal taste, and the sometimes random hills on which those critics and fans will die on to argue whose taste reigns supreme?
For PAPER, any year that women, communities of color and queer people get the mic and rock it in a really big way provides major cause for celebration. Across genres, 2019's albums were particularly exceptional in this regard, showing that everyone can find common ground and lay their pitchforks down to prioritize artists shifting the ways we consider music and culture at large.
Related | PAPER's Top 50 Songs of 2019
Whether it's FKA Twigs' mighty comeback, the explosive cross-generational success of goth teen queen Billie Eilish, sweeping magnum opuses by diverse artists entering their glorious final forms, or queer and trans indie-pop outliers poised for megastardom, 2019 was thee final year to prep listeners for 2020 — a year of perfect vision, in which there are even more seats at the table for those previously denied them.
Lover should have been Taylor Swift's self-titled album. Because on it, she ascends to her final form: rainbows, glitter, kittens and all. A slightly unhealthy obsession with her haters. A devotion to crafting fairy tales from real life. Lover is cloying, self-righteous and often truly obnoxious. Lover is ambitious, immaculate and often truly breathtaking. The best songs are perfect: epic and precise. The worst songs have the capacity to grow on you like weeds. We've been celebrating male artists' foibles as self-aware power plays for years. I'm intrigued by the concept of doing the same for Swift. It's easy to picture her cackling about the people who'd hear "London Boy" and turn the record off. Lover is the logical endpoint of "Blank Space" — the first time Swift learned to throw the parts of herself being weaponized against her back at critics. But while Reputation was her album for those critics, Lover is for the fans. — Jael Goldfine
Must Listen: "The Archer"
For the most part, Black people understand the importance of history and context innately, given ours is prone to constant white erasure. Enter Jamila Woods, Chicago poet, educator, activist and musician, whose interest in examining Black lives of the past reflects a desire to uplift and keep those legacies alive — alongside her own. Her sophomore release LEGACY! LEGACY! is a generous, forthright invitation to celebrate this desire. Across 13 robust jazz and lush R&B arrangements named after historic cross-disciplinary teachers and heroes, Woods sings about everything from defining her own joy ("BASQUIAT") and being Black enough ("ZORA") to being the author of her story ("BALDWIN"). And as Woods sings on "BETTY," an untold introduction to "Mrs. Miles Davis," she feels validated in not compromising what makes her special: "I am not your typical girl/ Throw away that picture in your head." — Michael Love Michael
Must Listen: "BASQUIAT"
JPEGMAFIA is an efficient experimentalist, packing chaotic sounds, choppy ad libs, carnal rap vocals and loaded lyrics into tightly wound tracks. All 18 songs on the Baltimore artist's new album, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, are like firecrackers, each exploding differently than the next, but exploding nonetheless. On "Kenan Vs. Kel," Peggy says he's "on a mission to slaughter the competition," transitioning halfway from shimmery, glitched-out bliss to grinding hedonistic production. The rapper oscillates between these two extremes, provoking the genre just enough without abandoning his love of pop (namely Charli XCX and Britney Spears). "This is the beauty of rap," JPEGMAFIA told PAPER earlier this year. "We can still come with anything and pull in new influence and it's still rap at its core." — Justin Moran
Must Listen: "Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot"
The Boo-Ah bitch, Kim Petras, came back this year to remind us exactly who the reigning spooky queen truly is. Expanding off her previous EP of the same name, TURN OFF THE LIGHT pretty much does for Halloween what Mariah Carey did for Christmas. From the metallic scrapes of "Knives" to Elvira's sinister feature on the title track, Petras masterfully turns horror tropes into electro-injected club anthems across the project. It's tongue and cheek without being gimmicky; for every over-the-top banger like "Death by Sex," there is a classic power-pop gem like "There Will Be Blood." Its gothic inspiration makes the record cohesive, while leaving the project open-ended enough for Petras to work her magic. Turn Off the Light goes for the kill and enjoys every last blood-soaked second of it. — Matt Moen
Must Listen: "There Will Be Blood"
Latinx artists absolutely dominated in 2020, making the permanence and universal appeal of urbano — the broad term encompassing reggaeton, Latinx trap and dembow, among other styles — undeniable. OASIS, the eight-song early summer collab of two of urbano's biggest stars (Puerto Rico's Bad Bunny and Colombia's J Balvin, who also happen to be adorably close pals), epitomizes the exciting and experimental place where the genre's at right now. Standouts include "LA CANCIÓN" a perfectly tragic breakup tale that moves at an emo pace, "YO LE LLEGO," a booming bop in the globally understood "where's the party?" tradition — and we could go on to name the rest, to be honest. — Jhoni Jackson
Must Listen: "LA CANCIÓN"
Claire Cottrill could've leaned into the simple Spotifycore bedroom pop that made her famous. Instead, for her debut album she put the laptop away, picked the brains of everyone she met, teamed up with a master indie producer and mined her most vulnerable experiences to craft a lovely self-portrait. Clairo tells the story of her life with the sounds of her life: Vampire Weekend-style guitar runs, Toro y Moi beats, R&B sounds from the girl-groups of her childhood, chilly autotune to signify emotional distance, and a children's choir as a proxy for her younger self. It's all glued together with banging drums and Claire's wry lyricism, with which she renders adolescence so unflinchingly that it begins to feel bearable. "Eighth grade was never that tight" she trails off, at the end of her account of a middle school suicide attempt in "Alewife." "I was 15 when/ I first felt loneliness," she remembers matter-of-factly on "White Flag." It's a heavy record, but bursts of joy, clarity and queer discovery let light in through the cracks. Immunity showed us who Clairo is in multiple ways. — Jael Goldfine
Must Listen: "North"
Many described Late Night Feelings as a record of "sad bangers," but that's a rather glossy reading of Mark Ronson's latest triumph. The implication is that any other club bop is inherently for happy people, when we all know that a trip to the discotheque — while glittering — rarely resembles Saturday Night Fever. The album's track list is a songbook of disco-laden pop complexities; it listens like a musical. A rising overture opens the record to a blurry reality, while sonic motifs ("On and on and on") are weaved throughout to establish continuity during a night of loss and sin.
To ignore the sheer power of the femme presence on Late Night Feelings would be irresponsible. Alt-pop powerhouse Lykke Li lends her vocals to the title track, while Camila Cabello resists pop structuring on "Find U Again." The apex of the record, however, is King Princess' appearance on the multiplex of a hit, "Pieces of Us." The main chorus, which hits past the halfway point of the track itself, is the pop melody forbidden fruit artists dream of plucking in a studio session with Ronson: nostalgic enough to sting far past its runtime. — Brendan Wetmore
Must Listen: "Find U Again" (feat. Camila Cabello)
Naming her 2019 EP after her 2017 "My Neck, My Back" freestyle "Icy Grl" was just one of many warning signs that Saweetie was about to hit the charts in a big way. Breakout hit "My Type" became the summer song that could cause a purge of club bathroom stalls and flood of the dancefloor with just a whisper: "Hennessy on my lips, take a little sip/ Privacy on the door, I'ma make the shit grip." ICY is truly one of the least derivative rap projects released in 2019, while still remaining relatable. It features two Quavo-assisted tracks, "Tip Toes" and "Emotional," both of which will guarantee replay requests at the DJ booth. The booming opener "Trick" shows Saweetie's determination to make compelling trap hits, featuring a head-banging drum pattern, a lyrical tribute to modern astrology, and a repetitive chorus that'll have you twerking in your seat. It's Saweetie all 2019 and 2020, understood? — Brendan Wetmore
Must Listen: "Tip Toes" (feat. Quavo)
The follow-up to 2017's widely celebrated album, Flowerboy, Tyler, the Creator put us back in our feelings this year with his most mature and nuanced album to date. Embracing a scratchy lo-fi aesthetic, Tyler incorporates elements of gospel, soul and pop into his bizarre hip-hop orchestrations along with bright synths and lumbering basslines to provide a cheerier backdrop for the album's heavier themes. A self-produced record about heartbreak and the ways in which love can turn us into/make us feel like a grotesque monster, IGOR is Tyler's most cohesive record to date. From groovy barn-burners like "I THINK" to desperation-drenched ballads like "ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?," Tyler makes it all fit together in one heartbroken universe. — Matt Moen
Must Listen: "EARFQUAKE"
The cerebral "Texas Film" for Solange's fourth studio album When I Get Home is a love letter to Houston and an exploration of origin. Set to cosmic jazz, R&B and hip-hop, the film's freeform structure and candy paint finish is packed with imagery of Black cowboys galloping, groups of dancers in circular formations and a surreal dance sequence between Solange and a masked man in a beaded suit. First teased on Blackplanet.com, it melts time altogether and takes place in Black diasporas both real and imagined. Sleek downtown architecture, parking lots full of DeLoreans and Solange's signature slow-mo twerk are just small parts of a major feat for the singer and for musical visuals in general. — Roytel Montero
Must Listen: "Binz"
Coming off the momentum of two game-changing mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, expectations for Charli XCX's latest studio album were pretty high, and thankfully she delivered. Having radically reshaped her sound with the help of experimental pop-minded producers like A. G. Cook and SOPHIE, Charli was served as the culmination of her recent artistic genesis. Combining a future facing sound with her pop-writing prowess and incredible ability to assemble an all-star list of collaborators, Charli pulls out all the stops. From the watery ASMR banger "Shake It" (feat. Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar) to the nostalgia-laden verses of Troye Sivan's "1999," Charli's ability to straddle the line between experimental and accessible is the key to its success. It's the realization of the PC Music dream; impeccable pop pushed to the extreme. — Matt Moen
Must Listen: "Next Level Charli"
With just five songs on its track list, one of which is a trap-dubstep remix of previous single "DDU-DU DDU-DU," BLACKPINK's KILL THIS LOVE EP doesn't have time to meander through serviceable b-sides or deep cuts — which is precisely why every track packs the punch of a radio-polished single. In a musical epoch marked by chilled-out, downtempo R&B, whispered or mumbled pop hooks and moody beats, BLACKPINK's no-apologies zeal for larger-than-life dance-pop is a bold and welcome diversion. On the album's explosive title track, "Kill This Love," members Lisa, Jennie, Rosé and Jisoo make a strong case for murder (of one's ability to fall in love, anyway — it's a certain path to heartbreak, so fuck it). "Kick It" is a rock and hip-hop-inflected pop anthem to self-love that particularly dazzles during its girl gang chant bridge, while "Don't Know What To Do" is a big electro-pop banger that builds and builds before detonating like a missile the moment the chorus hits. But even during the EP's quieter moments, like on their heart-bare, country-infused ballad "Hope Not," the girls prove that their ability to capture — and keep — our attention isn't just dependent on bombast and swagger. — Erica Russell
Must Listen: "Kill This Love"
Halfway through their sophomore album, MUNA resigns from love. It's bullshit, but Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson are so skilled at making the perfect songs for particular moments that you believe them. When Gavin sits down to write about wanting somebody who's taken, or craving change, she does it with searing precision and generous honesty. Sometimes it's as specific as her autobiography (from "It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby" "You're gonna move to New York/ And experiment with communism/ Go down on a girl/ After reading her some Frantz Fanon"), or as universal as "Number One Fan," a monologue between confidence and self-doubt. MUNA songs are always smart, but they don't over-intellectualize. Crafted from euphoric glittery synths and ecstatic geysers of drums in the life-affirming style of Robyn, the trio's vignettes of heartbreak double as invitations to dance it all out. — Jael Goldfine
Must Listen: "Never"
As I looked out the window at the sky, the bus I was on careened through miles of rolling forest roads near the Pocono Mountains. Playing softly in my headphones was "How to disappear," Norman Fucking Rockwell's waltzing midpoint, and beams of sunlight danced in my pupils. Before I knew it, tears fell down my face as Lana sang the song's final lines in a peacefully resigned murmur: "I'm always going to be right here/ No one's going anywhere."
This message of serene surrender and certainty grounds the album's exploration of a modern world on fire. We remain, even as the California hills burn. If Lana's last album, 2017's Lust For Life, was her form of American protest music, NFR is a balm for the soul in times of sociopolitical unrest and pending climate disaster. She's largely done away with romanticizing toxic love in favor of a more widescreen approach, eviscerating man-children in the album's Fiona Apple-esque title track, and meditating on how the world needs perhaps more hope these days than love, even when it's dangerous. All the while, she writes her most potent music to-date — the most synthesized Lana Del Rey statement that only Lana Del Rey could make. In doing so, she pays homage to the Joni Mitchells and Leonard Cohens before her, whose folksy birdsong hymns did what all great art, and Lana herself, manages to do in trying times: respond and provoke catharsis. This road leads to healing. — Michael Love Michael
Must Listen: "the greatest"
Oscillating autotune, blaring guitar riffs, nonsensical lyrics and volume-clipping bass drops? Welcome to a 100 gecs-guided tour of pop hell. Dylan Brady and Laura Les' genre-resisting project had been making an undeniable impact in DIY sub-communities on SoundCloud prior to the release of their debut album, but with 1000 gecs they're being heard on a more massive scale than ever before. From going on tour with Brockhampton to playing a series of sold-out headlining shows across the country, 100 gecs is newly front-and-center. The experience of listening to this 23 minute-long record is quick, yes, but it's nearly 4D. Opening track "745 sticky," with its manipulated vocals that sound like a choir of choking dolphins, the song begins as a ferocious trap-pop bop: "I make my money on my own, yeah/ Wakin' up five in the morning, yeah." Then the song devolves into a vertigo-diagnosed Skrillex beat, accompanied by a smattering of samples ranging in randomness: a siren, a wail, a dog's bark. If you're confused, yet can't help but hit replay, good — that's exactly the intended effect. — Brendan Wetmore
Must Listen: "money machine"
This year pop found its genderfluid savior and their name is Dorian Electra. Their debut album Flamboyant is catchy, campy, over-the-top and unabashedly queer with an almost theatrical androgyny that makes Electra sound like no one else. Bouncing from glossy electro-pop one second to gear-grinding dubstep the next, Flamboyant is a veritable theme park of genres. Each track contains its own high octane thrill ride cobbled together by some of the most exciting producers and songwriters making music today.
On Flamboyant, Electra chooses to tackle themes of masculinity, identity and queerness within the confines of their music. In their breakout single, "Career Boy," they lampoon the trappings of office culture with a BDSM twist. On "Man to Man" they upend traditionally toxic notions of masculinity in favor of a more radical vulnerability. Wielding wit and satire like a sharpened blade, Electra addresses these topics in a way that doesn't feel overly academic or patronizing. Electra's ability to fold this into an engaging, well-polished pop product is what puts them in a league of their own and ultimately has us hitting play again and again and again. — Matt Moen
Must Listen: "Freaky 4 Life"
On the coda of FKA Twigs' stunning sophomore album's centerpiece "mary magdalene," the tense minor keys and drum patterns fall away to reveal a woman calling out from the abyss. She sings in quivering falsetto: "Oh, you didn't hear me now/ You didn't hear me when I told you." This chilling bridge hinges the album's first and second halves, but it's also a powerful statement about how women are systematically erased. In relationships, their worth is defined by a sacrificial ability to prioritize male partners' needs above their own. In history, their significant contributions are minimized. Who writes these narratives? On MAGDALENE, Twigs asks the question, informing an album equally modern and biblical — as if to say that times may have changed, but global attitudes about "a woman's place" have not. In 2019, she advocates for a fairer rewrite of Mary Magdalene's previously damned origin story: she was her own woman, a "creature of desire" removed from the virgin-whore complex and as Twigs sings, an inherently divine being with her own "sacred geometry."
And as she does for Mary, a revered and reviled figure, Twigs rebirths herself throughout MAGDALENE, a layered album that rewards (and demands) repeat listens. The songs, which she wrote and co-produced the lion's share of, are wrought from heartbreak and resilience. On "thousand eyes," she can't be anything less than perfect, or she'll be torn apart in the public's gaze. On "holy terrain," Twigs rejects the love of a man "bound by his boys and his chains." She shares her partner's loneliness on "home with you," where home is a warped cocoon of safety and danger. She battles internal and external demons on "fallen alien," singing over haunted piano chords: "In this age of Satan, I'm looking for a light to take me home and guide me out." Twigs' light comes from within, though, because she's everything. — Michael Love Michael
Must Listen: "fallen alien"
Former Chairlift frontwoman Caroline Polacheck's Pang was the autumnal nightcap that girls and gays everywhere had been praying for all summer. While Polacheck's vocals are most certainly front-and-center — tracks like "New Normal" and "Door" demonstrate her more manipulative, pitch-shifting understanding of the voice as an instrument — the production on Pang is beyond lofty. Every synth blip, vocal modulation and percussive element is weighty enough to keep steady the immense loving pains between her words. Sharing co-executive production credits on the album with Polacheck is producer and PC Music whiz Danny L Harle; also included in the production credits is PC Music founder, A. G. Cook. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the same glitch-pop sensibility that brought to life the mythology around the London-formed label is present on Pang. The title track features a series of radar blips in its instrumentation, ringing through its entirety with the occasional triangle-like sample and rushing drum hit to punctuate her sentences. That being said, the record isn't participating whatsoever in bubblegum pop trends, nor mocking them. Pang is something else — a meditative lapse from actual romance into a fantasy, as told by Polacheck herself. — Brendan Wetmore
Must Listen: "Go As a Dream"
No one could've predicted Billie Eilish, a teen pop star who has critics close reading her braces, and millions of teens lmaoing at masculinity alongside her. Or maybe she was entirely foreseeable: the obvious pendulum swing from the pink, fluffy normativity of '00s pop of her childhood. Plenty of artists are powerfully reworking that tradition, but the 17-year-old rose to greatness not in spite of dressing like (as Tyler, the Creator put it) a linebacker and making haunted, uncanny minimalist pop, but because of it. WHEN WE ALL FALL is one of the year's sentient responses to being young in 2019: a wasteland haunted by dead friends, Xanax, the climate and the monsters in her own head (the three closing songs have a suicide story arc). With it, Eilish made space on the charts for freaky sounds and dark thoughts, while also emanating life (see: "bad guy," "you should see me in a crown"). It's also simply an album of catchy, poignant ballads and bangers. Generationalisms aside, given how far the record brought Eilish and her brother from the simple style of "Ocean Eyes," what she chooses to do next will be just as unpredictable. — Jael Goldfine
Must Listen: "you should see me in a crown"
Around this time last year, I received a poster in the mail of breakout rap star Megan Thee Stallion wearing a red wig and licking a lollipop, encouraging me to listen to her viral Tina Snow hit, "Big Ole Freak." She's come infinitely far since then, and when her debut mixtape Fever finally arrived, it solidified her formidable presence in music and pop culture at large.
The anime-loving, book-smart Texan — per her late mother's advice, she's stayed in school to study health administration, knowing the importance of a fail-safe back-up plan — reminded audiences that Yeehaw originated with Black people, made everyone feel their inner Hot Girl year-round, scored high fashion clout with Anna Wintour, and inspired millions with her live performances co-starring those powerful knees. The most important thing about Megan is that she's an underdog leading the way for southern Black women to reclaim their rightful thrones in rap's still predominantly male, coastal echo chamber.
Though now signed to 300 Entertainment and repped by Jay-Z's Roc Nation, she prides herself on being self-made. She writes her own songs and relies on old-fashioned integrity, hard work and unapologetic authenticity to secure her place on top. And all of this finds its way onto Fever, a collection of nonstop, high-energy, maximal bangers spotlighting Meg's confident flows bolstered by limitless self-respect. The ethos underneath even her rowdiest anthems is "you can do it, too." She schools boys on her self-worth ("he know he givin' his money to Megan") because she's the best they'll ever have, all while doing hood rat shit with her hood rat friends, leading games of Simon Says at epic dance parties, staying unbothered and keeping it realer than real. Going into 2020, Megan Thee Stallion and her built-in winner's mindset is thee one to root for. Best believe she'll bring her friends along for the ride. — Michael Love Michael
Must Listen: "Realer"
"TEARS IN MY HENNESSY" by Joey LaBeija
Must Listen: "dial up affection"
"Trinity" by Eartheater
Must Listen: "High Tide"
"Arizona Baby" by Kevin Abstract
Must Listen: "Peach"
"Slayyyter" by Slayyyter
Must Listen: "Celebrity"
"GIRLS" by Yung Baby Tate
Must Listen: "Mean Girl" (feat. Queen Key and Asian Doll)
As chosen by Justin Moran, Michael Love Michael, Jael Goldfine, Matt Moen, and Brendan Wetmore